The Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands are both vast, beautiful and unique. The Ten Thousand Islands that surround the island of Chokoloskee, however, hold mysterious disappearances, ancient Calusa native burial grounds, and were once home to businessman and serial killer, Edgar J. Watson. The story of Watson has always intrigued me, and as a recent UF graduate with a degree in History, I began to retrieve more information about it. The majority of the information I gathered for this article are historical facts about Watson from the stories I heard growing up, and my cousin Kenny Brown, whose grandfather Bill Brown was at the event of Watson’s murder.
Edgar J. Watson, also known as Ed Watson, was a blue-eyed, hot-tempered man, born in South Carolina on November 11, 1855. At an early age, Watson fled South Carolina along with his mother and sister Minnie, to escape his abusive and violent father. The family ended up in Fort White, Florida, where Watson spent the rest of his childhood. As a young man, Watson began to mirror his father’s violent actions by getting into numerous fights that eventually led to one of his first murders. Watson then fled to Oklahoma, where he met the famous American outlaw, Belle Starr, who leased land to him.
Belle Starr was associated with Jesse James, Cole Younger, and numerous other wild west outlaws. Starr was told by authorities to not hang around with any criminals after a judge placed her on parole. She knew Watson had a warrant out for his arrest for a murder he committed in Florida and attempted to make him leave the property she leased to him. Watson was the vengeful type. One day, when Starr was riding horseback into town, Watson shot her in the back, killing her on the spot. He was arrested, and although the evidence led straight to him, the grand jury voted that Watson was not guilty. Upon returning to Florida, Watson murdered a man in Arcadia, claiming it was an act of self-defense, and pushed towards the Ten Thousand Islands where he met his fate.
Watson knew the Everglades would be the perfect place for a fugitive to hide and start a new life. When he arrived, Watson went to Halfway Creek, which is now a well-known kayaking trail, and met John Joseph Brown and William Brown. Watson told them he was looking for land to purchase, and they informed him about a large sum of land 10 miles away along the Chatham Bend River. At the time, the land was owned by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company, which owned a lot of land in this territory. Watson purchased the 40 acres on the Chatham Bend, built a large house, and began farming. He was interested in harvesting sugarcane to make syrup, so William Brown showed him the process of it. Before long, Watson obtained 90-gallon syrup kettles and a sugarcane mill to start his sugarcane syrup business, Island Pride.
Watson traveled to multiple cities, including Marco Island and Fort Myers, to gather workers for his business. Unfortunately, Watson never paid any of his workers, and instead when they asked for their money, he would kill them and toss their bodies into the river where the locals of Chokoloskee and Everglades City began to find them. No one knew where the bodies originated from since all of Watson’s workers were from out of town. The incident that opened up their eyes and caused locals to react was when Watson killed the Tucker family at the mouth of Lost Mans River. The Tucker family were well known in Chokoloskee, and they had grown crop on the property of Lost Mans River, which Watson purchased. Watson told them to vacate the island, in which they stated they would in a few months once their crops were finished. Upon their refusal to leave, he murdered them and threw them in the river. Once the locals and authorities began suspecting him for the murders, Watson placed the blame on his foreman Leslie Cox. None of the locals believed Watson and continued their suspicions.
A few locals went to authorities in Fort Myers to report the killings, and the Lee County Sheriff at the time, Frank Tippins, noted there was nothing they could do since the land on Chatham River was considered Monroe County. During this time, Collier County was nonexistent. William Brown ultimately went to Sheriff Tippins himself after hearing talk among the locals that they were planning to kill Watson. He told Sheriff Tippins that if the authorities don’t do something first that the locals were going to take matters into their own hands. Three days after the 1910 hurricane, Watson ventured on his boat towards the Smallwood Store of Chokoloskee where he came face-to-face with a crowd of furious, armed locals.
Watson attempted to change their attitudes towards him by stating that he killed Leslie Cox and stuck with his story that Cox was to blame for the murders. He held Cox’s hat in his hand and showed the crowd the bullet hole that was in it. The locals didn’t budge and told Watson that they were taking him in to be investigated. Watson drew up his shotgun and attempted to fire, but the gun failed. His gun held paper shells that got wet from the hurricane’s flooding, and before he could reach into his dark-colored frock coat to pull out his Top Break Smith & Wesson pistol, the mob shot him dead. A few locals tied Watson’s body behind a boat and dragged it to Rabbit Key where he was first buried. They dug a shallow grave for his body and stacked coral rocks on top of him so he wouldn’t wash out into the water.
Three weeks later, Walter Langford, Watson’s son-in-law and organizer of the First National Bank of Fort Myers, dug up Watson’s remains and took them to be buried in the Fort Myers Cemetery on Michigan Avenue. Bill Brown, William Brown’s son, was only 6 years old at the event where Edgar Watson was shot dead by the townspeople and told the story to his children and grandchildren many times, just like the other Everglades pioneers did.
If it wasn’t for these stories that were passed down by our ancestors, we would’ve never known what really happened or why the locals of the Everglades killed Edgar Watson. Although the event occurred over 100 years ago, many can still sense his presence at the Smallwood Store. The museum used to stage reenactments of the event at the store, including one back in 2010 for the 100th year anniversary. Edgar J. Watson may be gone, but his story will remain among the history of the Everglades forever.